Energy crisis hits online education, school-leaving exams

Government-imposed power cuts that have been occurring in Sri Lanka since January – the worst power outages in over 25 years – have seriously affected students and teachers at a time when many are relying on online education.

The power cuts are being imposed due to spiralling global oil prices, exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, together with an economic crisis as Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves drop to a record low.

According to an Asian Development Bank report on online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic published in September 2020, Sri Lanka made a remarkable transition to online higher education in response to the pandemic. A survey quoted in the report said 90% of student respondents in Sri Lanka had said they were able to access online university classes.

However, with ongoing power cuts, online teaching and learning are now severely affected. Parents and teachers said the power crisis, coming on top of the pandemic, has affected students physically and mentally.

Since the end of January, Sri Lanka has imposed daily hours-long power cuts on a rolling basis between 8am and 11pm. As the crisis deepened, from the first week of March onwards, seven-hour power outages have occurred almost daily – the longest power cuts experienced in the country in 26 years.

Teachers have had to suspend online classes and universities have delayed exams.

Anushka, a PhD student at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy, said students were unable to submit academic reports before the deadlines. “This is a terrible situation; we can’t work on our theses. Laptops and computers cannot operate. Even Wi-Fi is not working. I simply cannot achieve the deadline,” she told University World News.

The power crisis has forced students to study using homemade kerosene oil lamps and candlelight. Political parties, civil society, lecturers, students, trade unions and other groups in Sri Lanka have been protesting against the government in the streets and through social media.

About 25% of Sri Lanka’s electricity is from oil-fired power plants. But due to the country’s severe shortage of foreign exchange, in part due to a collapse in the foreign tourism sector during the pandemic, and from a reduction in Russian tourists since the invasion of Ukraine – Sri Lanka is popular with Russians – the government has been unable to purchase enough oil. Several power plants have had to shut down due to a lack of fuel.

Sri Lanka has been experiencing an economic crisis for several years. According to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, the country’s foreign reserves dropped to US$2.36 billion in January 2022. When the current government took office in November 2019, it was more than triple that, at approximately US$7.5 billion.

The lack of foreign exchange has also led to shortages of imports including food, medicines, cement, fertilizers and car parts. Supermarkets have been forced to ration staple foods.

On 18 March, final term examinations of schools in the country’s Western Province and elsewhere were cancelled due to a shortage of paper and other materials due to the economic crisis. According to the Department of Education of the Western Province, printers of examination papers were unable to secure foreign currency to import the paper and ink they needed.

As the energy crisis escalated, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa addressed the nation on 16 March and requested the public to limit as much as possible their use of fuel and electricity during the crisis period.

School leavers affected

Some 350,000 students who sat the university entrance (A-level) examination held from 7 February to 5 March said they faced hardship due to the power crisis.

Although the Education Ministry requested the Ceylon Electricity Board not to impose power cuts during the examination period, it nonetheless did so due to a lack of oil supplies.

“We were studying mostly at night, but with these power cuts we had to use candlelight; it was not easy to adapt with those dim lights,” Praveen Lakith, an A-Level student at Ananda College, Colombo, told University World News.

“These days most students use smart mobile phones, computers and laptops for their studies. The government should immediately allow students to study without any trouble.” Priyadarshani, a parent of an 18-year-old student in Mathugama said.

Prasad Chaminda Lokubalasooriya, a popular economics tutor in Gampaha town, close to the capital Colombo, said some tutors were having difficulties conducting online classes for students.

“The university entrance A-Level exam is a very competitive exam. Students had to face power cuts during the exam period, though the government promised to supply uninterrupted electricity, and they failed,” he said.

University of Ruhuna Students’ Union President Prasanna Bandara said students, teachers and non-academic staff were severely inconvenienced.

“Due to daily power cuts, both ordinary people as well as university students are facing a number of problems. These days there are exams in some of our faculties, but we cannot use PCs, laptops for our studies,” he told University World News, saying the unions would launch protests against “government incompetency”.

“We ask the government and the education authorities to immediately solve the academic problems that have arisen in the university system due to this power crisis,” he said noting the unions would go out in the streets to ensure students’ right to education.

No proper plans

The unions blame government economic mismanagement and said the government has no proper plans to ensure either electricity or fuel supplies. It is also unclear how long the crisis could last, with Sri Lanka turning to neighbouring India and the International Monetary Fund for assistance.

Ceylon Teachers’ Union General Secretary Joseph Stalin said the government had not put in place a mechanism to manage the power crisis.

Almost 65% of Sri Lanka’s electricity is derived from thermal power – of which 25% is from oil and 40% coal, according to the Ceylon Electricity Board. Hydropower currently accounts for a third of the country’s electricity output while only 5% is from renewable energy sources.

Nevertheless, Sri Lanka aims to obtain 70% of the country’s total electricity generation from renewable energy sources by 2030.

The government has also made plans to transition away from fossil fuels, promote de-carbonisation, and make Sri Lanka a carbon neutral country by 2050.